Rep. Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, wants to give away all your money. Well, most of it, anyway. She has proposed paying out $14 trillion in reparations. That’s more than half of America’s annual GDP. Alas, giving her half your income almost certainly would only be the start.
Reparations are necessary “if we desire a prosperous future for all,” claimed Bush. However, welfare programs never disappear. They subsidize dependency, not self-sufficiency. This financial bonanza would be celebrated, then squandered, leaving recipients even poorer. Bush undoubtedly would be back, complaining about additional injustices that obviously require another round of “reparations.” (READ MORE: Cori Bush Demands Reparations From All but Pro-Slavery Democratic Party)
There was a time for genuine reparations. In 1865, with the end of the Civil War and occupation of the South, slaves deserved recompense from their former owners and others who had benefitted from the terrible trade in human beings. However, northerners were not prepared to enforce such a step. And land redistribution likely would not have survived the period of “redemption,” when Southerners overturned reconstruction. Still, freedmen empowered through property ownership would have been better able to resist, and then the North might have been more willing to back them. This was a tragic opportunity lost.
Today, alleged reparations for slavery have nothing to do with justice. Rather, they are the latest scheme developed by Progressives in Power (PiPs) to engage in lefty social engineering while enriching themselves. The Great Society was supposed to lift the masses out of poverty. The result has been family and community collapse, along with entrenched government dependence. With the public resistant to efforts to resuscitate the social welfare state, PiPs are using reparations to recast the issue as moral and legal necessity.
In introducing her legislation, Bush painted with a very broad brush: Uncle Sam “must compensate descendants of enslaved Black people and people of African descent in the United States to account for the harms of chattel slavery, the cumulative damages of enslavement, and the epochs of legal and de facto segregation.” From there, she tossed in the kitchen sink, including everything from infant mortality and wealth gaps to voting practices and health outcomes. Bush concluded: “The reason why the United States is where it is economically is because of enslavement.”
Like so many PiPs, Bush appears confused by history, unaware that America was not a uniquely terrible land with rigid, exploitative oligarchies. Tragically, slavery was widespread around the world and disappeared only over time. The celebrated “democratic” communities of ancient times — the Roman republic and Greek city states — were slave societies. Other forms of forced labor go far back in history. Poor peasants served as vassals to Medieval lords. The Spanish brought peonage to Latin America. Serfdom dominated rural Russian life for centuries. For much of human history life was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” if not solitary, as Thomas Hobbes observed.
Even worse was the world of war and conquest that so often yielded slaves. Standard operating practice was to slaughter the men and enslave the women and children. Entire cities were leveled. The Romans famously destroyed Carthage, enslaving its inhabitants and allegedly sowing the ground with salt to poison the soil. The modern practice is ethnic cleansing — typically committing mass slaughter, followed by driving away survivors and seizing their property.
There are few innocent parties. Empires that destroyed their predecessors were subsequently eradicated by more powerful armies. Even supposedly sophisticated and enlightened European rulers seized and redistributed conquered territory. Nations victorious against Nazi Germany drove millions of ethnic Germans from their homes, at enormous human cost. More recently, countries in the Middle East and Balkans forced ethnic and religious minorities from their lands, creating mass hardship and leaving millions of refugees, many of whom remain trapped in desultory camps.
Africans were the obvious victims of American slavery. However, Africans were also the chief perpetrators. From whence did the slaves come? Elsewhere in Africa — captured, marched, and sold by Africans. The practice would not have existed absent the criminal complicity of Africans. Among the modern African nations historically implicated in the odious practice are Algeria, Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, and Zambia.
In short, there is more than a little collective guilt to go around.
Which also gives the lie to Bush’s other claim, that “The reason why the United States is where it is economically is because of enslavement.” Given the ubiquity of economic collectivism, coercive oligarchy, forced labor, malign discrimination, rapacious conquest, and genocidal war, the only reason to single out slavery is political—to bolster the case for empowering and enriching PiPs.
Consider American history. With oceans east and west, and weak neighbors north and south, the U.S. has avoided the destructive wars of most other nations. America has suffered serious conflict on its territory only once, during the Civil War. There were brief incursions in the War of 1812 and World War II. Conflict with native Americans embroiled frontier territories. Otherwise, the U.S. spent its time in battle destroying other nations.
Compare that with Germany. Over the same period, the various German states suffered through multiple rounds of the Napoleonic wars. Then a series of unification conflicts. Next came World War I and defeat, followed by several short battles as the German empire collapsed and its territory was divided. Then World War II. In conflict, Germany suffered far more human and materiel loss than America.
Russia’s history is even more dramatic and tragic, thrice invaded and ravaged from the west by European states, plus a southern attack in the Crimean War. Multiple wars against Turkey, Sweden, Finland, Iran, and the Caucasus, as well as endless rebellions. Intervention in the 1848 Hungarian revolution. A devastating defeat by Japan. Various post-revolutionary battles as the Bolsheviks consolidated power. This history might help explain why America is wealthier than Russia.
And then there is the minor point of government policy. China’s history was one of oppression. Chinese peasants might not have been slaves, but no one would confuse their lives with the modern liberal ideal and notions of life and dignity. Into the 1980s, Chinese poverty was immiserating — it seems the country’s history of forced labor, intensified under rule by the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong, did not lead to the sort of riches that Bush apparently believes slavery yielded the U.S. (Indeed, in her perverse version of The Wealth of Nations, the entire Soviet empire and Moscow’s acolytes around the world should have enjoyed endless opulence through coercion!) It was only after the 1976 death of mad Mao, and Deng Xiaoping’s later economic reform program, that the Chinese people escaped a modern form of serfdom and prospered.
Indeed, what human experience demonstrates beyond doubt is that it is human freedom that delivers prosperity and growth. The rise of commercial society raised Europe’s feudal systems out of mass poverty. Even Karl Marx acknowledged the tremendous productivity of capitalism. The factories in Manchester were terrible compared to workplaces today, but they provided a much better life than rural Britain. So it also was within America.
Bush’s resolution states that “the United States benefitted from 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and the end of slavery in 1865, which would be valued at $97,000,000,000,000 today.” The mistake is to assume that America and Americans, including those living today, gained what the slaves lost. The northern states, which abandoned slavery, were much more prosperous and productive than the South, where slavery held sway. Only in recent years have we seen leading southern states gain on the rest of the country, because of more business-friendly policies, not the legacy of slavery.
Indeed, the great irony of the campaign for reparations is that the descendants of slaves are better off economically in America than Africa. Of course, slavery was a monstrous crime, destructive of life and dignity, a horror that cost many lives at the time and effectively imprisoned so many others. The practice cannot be justified in any way for any reason. However, Bush claims that people alive today are worse off because they as well as their ancestors ended up on this side of the Atlantic. That is simply untrue.
The issue begins with the simple reality that Cori Bush would not be here today but for slavery. People exist in a specific place and time. No Africans brought to America, no Cori Bush. So it is impossible to believe that she is worse off today, unless her life is worse than not having been born.
However, even when ignoring this metaphysical conundrum, her claim is nonsense. Where are the descendants of slaves likely to be better off? Compare America to Africa, where horrific conflicts have routinely killed hundreds of thousands or, in the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, millions of people. Even African nations at peace are almost all rated either not free or partly free by Freedom House, worse than even America’s least liberal state.
Moreover, consider living standards. The International Monetary Fund estimates America’s per capita GDP to be $80,000. That number is typically in the single-digit thousands in African nations. Several are in the hundreds. This list includes African nations that theoretically benefitted from the slave trade. The highest per capita GDP is $19,540, in the Seychelles. In continental Africa, Equatorial Guinea comes out on top at $9,780. In short, though slavery was a human horror, it did not make American descendants of slaves poorer.
Of course, many other injustices have plagued African Americans. But in this, they are not alone. The victims are many — native inhabitants, immigrants, Appalachian whites, women, and those who are otherwise marginalized or disadvantaged. They have faced social discrimination, legal bias, poor or no education, inadequate health care, and constricted economic opportunity. Alas, where in Africa are such people treated better? The U.S. has gotten much wrong, but it has provided sufficient liberty for them to escape their strictures and do better than their parents. That is why this country continues to be a magnet for immigration, including from people of color around the world.
Perhaps the most important argument against handing trillions of dollars to Uncle Sam in “reparations” is that PiPs are not to be trusted. Even when their intentions are good, their results are uniformly disastrous. Washington has poured trillions of dollars into social and educational programs, and the results do not match the resources expended. If nothing else, we should have learned that social engineering is not just hopelessly inefficient and incompetent, but wildly unfair and unjust.
Trillions of dollars were tossed wildly hither and yon as the COVID pandemic shut down much of the nation. Waste and theft were epidemic. Infrastructure and protectionist boondoggles even now spend hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars for every job “created.” Billions are wasted annually on corporate welfare. The panoply of Great Society programs has for decades subsidized the destruction of families — even foreclosing their formation. Licensing restrictions, wage regulations, and barriers to business creation have pulled away the ladder of opportunity from aspiring minorities. So-called urban renewal destroyed historic neighborhoods and communities. The drug war still ravages communities and makes trafficking appear to be the best opportunity for many young men. In almost every way, the progressive agenda has made its supposed beneficiaries worse off.
Moderate PiPs have been forced to address reality when claims for reparations look like an episode of Looney Tunes. For instance, the California Reparations Task Force decided that a state that never had slavery should pay reparations to all African Americans, with a bonus to the descendants of slaves. The estimated bill for the committee’s recommendations is some $800 billion, almost three times the annual state budget. Although Gov. Gavin Newsom approved creation of the committee, he balked when asked to write checks of up to $1.2 million to the aggrieved: the process “is about much more than just cash payments,” he observed. The state’s many PiPs were not pleased with the governor’s late-breaking penuriousness.
Even more fanciful was San Francisco’s reparations fantasy. It involved a check for $5 million plus a plethora of social programs, essentially the perennial PiP wish list. The total cost for just SanFran? $100 billion, more than seven times the city’s annual budget. Talk about fantasy! Even if California comes up with hundreds of billions of dollars to enrich those who clamor loudest, there’s no way Los Angeles and Oakland PiPs are going to let residents of the Golden City — which, tragically, no longer lives up to its old nickname — grab so much of the plunder.
City officials have yet to say no, but are not likely to vote yes. Mayor London Breed, who would be eligible for a big payday, was circumspect: “I look forward to reviewing those recommendations once they are finalized and make it clear in regards to my support at that time.” Alas, the problem of being responsible for a budget means Breed can’t easily close down the city government for seven years to fund a fantasy initiative developed in another dimension.
Slavery was terrible. So was the era of segregation and Jim Crow that followed. As is continuing racial prejudice. However, even an imperfect U.S. provided greater opportunity for both justice and prosperity than Africa. And Americans, irrespective of their backgrounds, are not responsible for the sins committed by their forefathers (and mothers). The injustice resulting from slavery yesterday is not solved by creating yet another racial spoils system today.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire and The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology.